The Future of Ethics

Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity

Willis Jenkins

"Willis Jenkins has written a brilliant and challenging book that deserves a wide readership. His penetrating question, 'What shall we sustain and why?' rings true as a humane call for ever-more engaged reflection from ethicists and environmentalists interested in the future of our shared planetary life."
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The Future of Ethics interprets the big questions of sustainability and social justice through the practical problems arising from humanity’s increasing power over basic systems of life. What does climate change mean for our obligations to future generations? How can the sciences work with pluralist cultures in ways that will help societies learn from ecological change?

Traditional religious ethics examines texts and traditions and highlights principles and virtuous behaviors that can apply to particular issues. Willis Jenkins develops lines of practical inquiry through "prophetic pragmatism," an approach to ethics that begins with concrete problems and adapts to changing circumstances. This brand of pragmatism takes its cues from liberationist theology, with its emphasis on how individuals and communities actually cope with overwhelming problems.

Can religious communities make a difference when dealing with these issues? By integrating environmental sciences and theological ethics into problem-based engagements with philosophy, economics, and other disciplines, Jenkins illustrates the wide understanding and moral creativity needed to live well in the new conditions of human power. He shows the significance of religious thought to the development of interdisciplinary responses to sustainability issues and how this calls for a new style of religious ethics.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Ethics in the Anthropocene

1. Atmospheric Powers: Climate Change and Moral Incompetence

2. Christian Ethics and Unprecedented Problems

3. Global Ethics: Moral Pluralism and Planetary Problems

4. Sustainability Science and the Ethics of Wicked Problems

5. Toxic Wombs and the Ecology of Justice

6. Impoverishment and the Economy of Desire

7. Intergenerational Risk and the Future of Love

Afterword: Sustaining Grace



"An impressive work of multidisciplinary scholarship. . . In its multidisciplinary scope, Jenkins’ book models the kind of thinking that is increasingly necessary to address problems that are global, multiscalar, and intertemporal. Readers will benefit not only from the range of sources cited in the footnotes and the masterful syntheses of information on complex socioecological problems, but also the evident moral seriousness that Jenkins brings to his task."—Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology

"This book’s strength is its scope, which encompasses theology, international human rights law, and innovative approaches to ethical thinking about problems that cross cultural and religious boundaries. Students of Christian ethics – especially those concerned with the links between religion and environmental advocacy/action – will find this extraordinary book very worthwhile."—Choice

"This pragmatic book will appeal . . . to ethicisit-activists . . . [and] anyone who is frustrated by our seeming inability to undertake effective constructive action on the environmental problems plaguing us today. . . . Fine addition to the conversation."—Anglican Theological Review

"Represents a compelling response to the unprecedented problems of climate change . . . charts a challenging new course for religious ethics. . . . Jenkins extends an invitation that other ethicists would do well to accept; in any case, his argument is convincing enough that they will be compelled to respond to it."—Sewanee Theological Review

"Willis Jenkins has written a brilliant and challenging book that deserves a wide readership. His penetrating question, 'What shall we sustain and why?' rings true as a humane call for ever-more engaged reflection from ethicists and environmentalists interested in the future of our shared planetary life."—Mary Evelyn Tucker, Forum on Religion and Ecology, Yale University

"When first I saw the title, The Future of Ethics, I thought it overwrought, if not pretentious. Then I read the book. This is a major, far-reaching, even indispensable, work, for the present as well as the future. Yes, I have my arguments with Jenkins. But if he is as instructed by my exchange as I am by his, both of us will be the wiser about what counts most—achieving a viable way of life for a planet in jeopardy at human hands."—Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary, New York City

"Rather than a book of despair, Jenkins argues for the possibility of religious ethics charting new strategies of moral agency by working within the traditions that form constantly shifting communities to meet the challenges of climate change and sustainability. Carefully argued, creative, and well-written, Jenkins challenges assumptions. This is a must read book."—Emilie Townes, Dean and Carpenter Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society, Vanderbilt Divinity School


Supplemental Materials


Winner of the American Academy of Religion's 2014 Award for Excellence in the Constructive-Reflective Studies category. One of Choice Magazine's 2014 Outstanding Academic Titles.

About the Author

Willis Jenkins is associate professor of religious studies, University of Virginia. He is the author of Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology, which won the 2009 Templeton Prize for Theological Promise.

352 pp., 6 x 9

Oct 2013

352 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-62616-017-0
Oct 2013

352 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-62616-018-7
Oct 2013

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